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The young man and the deathly sea

The killing of a teenage fisherman off Gaza's coast highlights Egypt's increasing squeeze on the enclave, locals tell MEE
Young people prepare to sail a boat similar to the one Feras Miqdad used at Gaza's Swedish Village beach (MEE/Mohamed Asad)

GAZA CITY - His eyes are slightly open, his face pale and close to frozen. A teardrop falls on his forehead from his weeping uncle, Ziad Miqdad, who looks in disbelief at the faded smile of 16-year-old Feras Miqdad.

The teenager’s body laid in the morgue at the Abu Yousef Al Najjar Hospital where he was taken after fishing from the sea to feed his family, who are all unwillingly unemployed while trapped for years inside Israel’s blockade.

“He was only fighting with the waves to bring some food for his younger brothers,” his aunt told MEE. “We never imagined he would be murdered by our Egyptian neighbours.”

On Thursday night, an Egyptian gunboat, patrolling the Gaza-Egyptian marine border started shooting at Gaza fishermen, Ziad Miqdad, who was also on board, told Middle East Eye.

“I told Feras to stay down until the shooting stopped and it was quiet again, when Feras started to move his fishing nets, at which point a bullet went straight to his heart,” his uncle said.

Ziad Meqdad, who could hardly speak, said no one else was shooting except for the gunboat, yet his family fishing boat was nowhere near Egyptian waters and the shooting took place in an area where they had gone fishing regularly.

Gaza health ministry spokesman Ashraf Al-Qudra confirmed that it was fire from the gun tower on the Egyptian boat that killed Feras and also injured another fisherman on Thursday.

The Gaza interior ministry said in a statement that it condemned the shooting and demanded an investigation into the incidents. Egyptian authorities have yet to comment on the case.

Brothers and neighbours

At the final prayers for Feras, hundreds of mourners gathered,  with many expressing frustration with their “Egyptian brothers”.

“Feras Mohammed Miqdad was not killed by Israeli fire,” the imam at the Belal Ben Rabah Mosque told the crowd, looking on at his body. “He was killed by gun fire from our Egyptian brothers.”

A man in the crowd lost control and screamed out in the middle of the mosque: “But those are collaborators with Israel who kill our children and drown our farmlands.”

Former Palestinian prime minister and top Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, who attended the funeral, expressed his own rage over the incident.

“We will not accept the continuation of suffering this way, as Rafah Crossing is closed, borders are being flooded with water and fishermen are being shot at,” he said. “This is not an expressive way for relationships with brothers of history, geography and neighbours.”  He said that Egypt’s security is of a concern to Palestinians.

A squeezed sea

Palestinian access to the sea has long been limited by the Israeli military, with the UN reporting that 85 percent of Gaza’s waters have been cut off from local fishermen, whose numbers have declined from 10,000 to less than 3,500 over the past decade.

In 2014, after the 51-day Israel-Gaza conflict, Israel agreed to expand the area in which Palestinians could fish at sea to six nautical miles. The restrictions were eased for a few days, but then stopped, according to Maha Husseini, a spokesman for Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor. 

That leaves remaining fisherman, who the UN have said mostly operate with poor equipment, to fish within an area that is virtually fished out.

In recent months, the already strained situation at sea has been further pressurised as Egyptian forces, alongside their intensified military operations to separate the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula, have been shooting at Palestinian boats, local fishermen told MEE.

While Egyptian forces have previously fired on Gazans accused of crossing the maritime border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, the recent incidents are believed to have targeted fishermen in Palestinian waters, they say.

Nizar Ayesh, chairman of the Syndicate of Palestinian Fishermen, said fishermen are caught between three firing zones in Gaza - one to the south of Rafah, with Egypt creating a buffer zone for fishing boats; one to the west and one to the north, both controlled by Israel. These restrictions mean that fishermen have only a small area of shore to work from and where the fish are now scarce, he said.

Ayesh said another Palestinian fisherman was killed in the past few months by Egyptian naval forces.

The big prison

Ziad Miqdad told MEE that he is in no doubt that he and his nephew were fishing in Palestinian waters when they were shot at. Having inherited his fishing trade from his grandfather and going out to sea since he was a teenager himself, he said he is fully aware of the suffocating restrictions in place.

On land, Egypt has closed the Rafah crossing over most of the past 80 days, making it difficult for Palestinians to get out of Gaza, except for a few visa categories allowed to leave via Erez Crossing, in the north. There are no other crossings in the Gaza Strip for civilians, leaving Gazans calling the enclave a big prison.

Carried on the same orange-coloured stretcher that has carried many of those killed and injured as a result of Egyptian operations in Rafah, Feras was taken in the rain to the cemetery and buried just a few hundred meters away from patrolling Egyptian troops.

Ziad Miqdad said he remains at a loss for what other fishermen in Gaza should do now, as they rely on family members, particularly older children, to go fishing with them before sunset, returning with the dawn of the next day.

He said it was difficult to know how to console Feras’ mother, only that her son was killed while trying to stop his family going hungry, and now he is gone.

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